Anne Schwanewilms in Recital at Wigmore Hall

Anne Schwanewilms was the perfect partner for Vignoles in this culminating
concert. Increasingly renowned for her interpretations of Wagner and Strauss,
the German lyric soprano’s recent Hyperion recording of these lieder has
won astonishing accolades, and in this recital she emphatically demonstrated
why she is fast becoming one of the leading Strauss singers of the new

Poised, authoritative and superbly assured, from the opening song,
‘Ach Lieb, ich mufl nun scheiden’ (‘Ah, my love, I must leave
you now’), Schwanewilms spun a seamless legato, now luminous and
shimmering, now radiant and sumptuous. Each phrase was shaped with innate
musicality, and while she may not have the widest range of tonal colour, she
subtly shaded particular notes to draw attention to the darker emotional hues
of some of these songs. Thus, while in this first lied Schwanewilms employed a
generally restrained vibrato, a controlled intensification — ‘Die
Erlen und die Weiden vor Schmerz in Tr‰nen stehn’ (The alders and willows
weep with pain’) — economically and intelligently pinpointed the
emotional centre of this lament.

The first four lieder aptly demonstrate the oft-unacknowledged expressive
range of Strauss’ songs. Moving from the swift, light Cherubino-esque
effervescence of ‘All’ mein Gedanken’ (‘All my
thoughts’), through the ethereal stratospheres of the floating, prosaic
lines of ‘Nachtgang’ (‘A walk at night’), arriving at
the sonorous, subdued depths of ‘Geduld’ (‘Patience’),
with its dark nadirs — ‘hourly a funeral bell demands/the last fare
of tears for the grave’ — Schwanewilms and Vignoles encompassed the
dramatic and emotional variety with naturalism and ease. Schwanewilms’
pianissimo was characterised by fragile sheen and innocence; yet such
delicacy was matched by a bright, radiant forte. ‘Geduld’
demonstrated Vignoles’ wonderful appreciation of both overall dramatic
structure and detailed nuance, as the swinging compound rhythms suspended over
low pedals gave way to a more airy texture —
‘“Patience”, you say, and lower your eyelids’ —
before the resumption of the original pendulous rocking led to an intensifying
accelerando and rise in tessitura, culminating in a final assertive cadence,
‘But for loving and kissing I have/ only one spring like the rose

The inclusion of Arnold Schoenberg’s name on the programme may have
caused a twinge of anxiety among the Wigmore Hall regulars and traditionalists,
but the ‘Four Lieder Op.2’ amply illustrated the natural
development of a German lyric idiom as the certainties of the nineteenth
century gave way to the modern tensions of the twentieth. First performed in
1900, these songs capture the equivocation between satisfying expressive
resolution and emotional unrest and revolution, an ambiguity — conveyed
through chromatic nuance, melodic unpredictability, textural variety and
rhapsodic outbursts which Schwanewilms and Vignoles relished.

In the first song, ‘Ertwartung’, ‘Expectation’, the
piano’s high, rippling figuration and unsettling chromaticism perfectly
captured the lunar gleams eerily playing on the surface of the ‘sea-green
pond’. Schwanewilms negotiated the melodic challenges with ease. Her
suspended high notes created a mood of effortless rapture and indulgence
— as ‘Three opals glimmer’ — before she subsided to a
more blanched, reserved tone for the equivocal closing phrase, ‘a
woman’s pale hand/ waves to him …’. Vignoles’ piano
postlude poignantly and effectively concluded and answered the questions posed
by the ellipsis.

In ‘Schenk mir deinen goldenen Kamm’ (‘Give me your golden
comb’), the soaring melodic arches, coupled with the piano’s rapt
harmonies, evoked the glorious yet troubling relationship between Jesus and
Mary Magdalene, at once ecstatic and dangerous, depicted by Dehmel’s
troubling verses. In these songs, Vignoles was in complete command of the
emotional landscape, as evidenced by the piano’s controlled after-phrases
in ‘Erhebung’ (‘Exlatation’) where the cathartic
release of tumultuous emotions was deeply affecting but never uncontrolled. In
‘Waldsonne’ (‘Sun in the forest’) Schwanesilms achieved
an effortless clarity in the leaps between vocal registers; while Vignoles,
descending through the registers, created a powerful narrative from different
harmonic interpretations of the repeating melodic motif.

The first half concluded with Strauss’s three ‘Ophelia
songs’. These are extraordinary, quasi-operatic songs, quirky
syncopations, melodic twists and unsettling dissonances conveying
Ophelia’s incumbent madness. The protagonist is both childlike in her
innocence and world-weary in despair. Thus, in ‘Guten morgen, ’s
ist Sankt Valentinstag’ (‘Good morning, it’s St
Valentine’s Day’) the off-beats and staccato articulation
destablised an insouciant text. And, the final song, ‘Sie Traugen ihn auf
der Bahre blofl’ (‘They carried him naked on the bier’), was
marked by extreme contrasts which reveal Ophelia’s mental distress: the
flowing melodic continuity of the piano’s legato lines and flowing right
hand figuration, and the soaring vocal phrases (‘Fahr’ wohl, meing
Taube!’ (‘Farewell, farewell, my dove’)), give way
to angry melancholy and the unstable tempo of the final stanzas, thereby
revealing Ophelia’s mental distress and intimating the forthcoming
tragedy. In these Shakespearean ‘tableaux’, the contrast between
the purity of Schwanewilms’ intonation and the intimations of imminent
mental collapse was deeply touching.

The second half of the recital allowed Vignoles to demonstrate his mastery
of Strauss’ ‘orchestral’ writing for the piano.
‘Winterweihe’ (‘Winter consecration’) was notable for
the warmth and richness of the sonorous piano bass, which set in relief the
exquisite delicacy of Schwanewilms’ soaring avowal to ‘dedicate day
and night to blissful love’. In ‘Wiegenliedchen’
(‘A little lullaby’) the performers’ alert but never
exaggerated attention to musical and dramatic detail was in evidence, swooping
vocal descents — ‘S¸fles Gesicht’ (‘you with the lovely
face’) — sweetly matching the translucent ripples of the piano
— as the ‘Little spider, little spider,/ shimmers in the

Strauss’ setting of Curt M¸ndel’s ‘Ach was Kummer, Qual
und Schmerzen’ uses sly chromatic twisting motifs to underpin the humour
of the text: and Schwanewilms’ wry smiles winks, and flighty, joyful
vocal leaps, invited the audience’s complicity, reinforcing what an
innately dramatic performer she is.

Through this recital, Vignoles’ had complete command of the textural
and formal complexity of these songs, complemented by an ability to convey an
astonishing variety of colour and mood — from the delicate fragility of
the rippling figuration in ‘Wiegenliedchen’ to the gentle, low
undulations of ‘Traum durch die D‰mmerung’ (‘Dream into

As the programme drew to a close, ‘O w‰rst du mein!’ (‘Ah,
were you mine!’) re-established the mood of romantic rapture, the
dominant resolution in the bass reached by a tantalising rising chromatic
movement. The final song, ‘Woodland rapture’
(‘Waldseligkeit’), succinctly paraphrased the expressive power of
Strauss’ lieder: with its suspended high notes, surprising harmonic
shifts, and contrast of major and minor tonalities, the apparently simple text
was transformed into a more complex narrative — as the performers
reminded us of the dark volk roots of this musico-dramatic

As an encore, aptly holding a floral bouquet, Schwanewilms gave a graceful,
relaxed rendition of ‘Das Rosenband’. Inexplicably, some patrons
had been seen to depart at the interval, but judging from the applause most of
the audience could have listened to this music all night. Both performers were
ever alert to both the musical beauty and dramatic potential of these songs.
Quite simply, this was magnificent singing and playing: genuinely shared
empathy and wonderful artistry.

Claire Seymour

image_description=Anne Schwanewilms [Photo courtesy of Haydn Rawstron Limited]
product_title=Anne Schwanewilms in Recital at Wigmore Hall
product_by=Anne Schwanewilms, soprano; Roger Vignoles, piano.
product_id=Richard Strauss: ‘Ach Lieb, ich mufl nun scheiden’; ‘All’ mein Gedanken’; ‘Nachtgang’; ‘Geduld’; ‘Drei Lieder der Ophelia’; ‘Winterweihe’; ‘Wiegenliedchen’; ‘Wer lieben will, muss leiden’; ‘Ach, was Kummer, Qual und Schmerzen’; ‘Blindenklage’; ‘Traum durch die D‰mmerung’; ‘Schlagende Herzen’; ‘O w‰rst du mein’; ‘Waldseligkeit’. Schoenberg: 4 Lieder Op. 2.Wigmore Hall, London. Wednesday 16th June 2010.